Judge Jennifer Malkowski thinks Barcelona is too easy—she challenges Woody to make his next romance "Vicky Cristina Detroit."
"[Cristina] knew what she didn't want, and that was: what Vicky valued above all else."
After finding success with a London story in Match Point, Woody Allen tries the European infusion again—this time in Barcelona, featuring vacationing best friends with opposite philosophies of love. But don't worry: despite the Spanish setting, these ladies are still neurotic New Yorkers. And if you're dreading a throwaway, beautiful-city romance, you'll find a pleasant surprise in Allen's tone here…
Facts of the Case
The best friends in question are, of course, Vicky (Rebecca Hall, Frost/Nixon) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, Ghost World). Vicky is practical in her love life, having gotten engaged to a bland and charmless New York banker, Doug (Chris Messina, Six Feet Under). An amusing sidenote is that she seems decidedly less practical in her work life: she's a graduate student in "Catalan Identity," and we can almost hear Allen snickering in the background when we get this information. Cristina, on the other hand, wants to be a romantic free spirit. She's ready for anything, including heartbreak, and seeks adventure to forget about the unsatisfying student film she's just finished.
With this study in opposites established, Allen throws in his Catalan catalyst: a handsome Spanish painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men), who is rumored to have had a violent split with his ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz, All About My Mother). Juan Antonio introduces himself to the women at a restaurant and immediately invites offers to whisk them away for a weekend of sightseeing and threesomes. Cristina manages to convince the objecting Vicky to attend the sightseeing, if not the threesomes, and a variety of romantic entanglements among Vicky, Cristina, Juan Antonio, and the infamous Maria Elena ensue.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is fresh off a Golden Globe win for Best Musical or Comedy, and the fact that it scooped up the award says a lot more about the industry's attitude toward Woody Allen than it does about the brilliance of the film. One of the best American directors in the '70s and '80s, Allen then descended into a cesspool of unimaginative flops for about a decade, causing much pain to his supporters. So these days, if he churns out something pretty good, people seem to be so relieved and elated that they hail it as the second coming. And I'm one of them. So let's be clear: Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the second coming.
Just kidding. I do love vintage Allen, but I'm not so smitten that I can't distinguish "pretty good" from "Best Picture." Like Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has gotten more praise than it deserves because of this Allen factor, and it certainly shouldn't have beaten Happy-Go-Lucky for the Golden Globe. However, it comes a lot closer to deserving it's hype than Match Point did, and the difference is that here Allen accomplishes great things with a delightfully unambitious little story. It's not epic, it's not overwrought, and in fact, its appeal lies precisely in the sober detachment with which it spins this romantic tale.
The key factor, and my favorite part of the film, is Allen's bold use of narration. The text itself ranges interestingly from simple exposition to novelistic prose to up-front psychological explanations of the characters. But its success relies on the surprising delivery by Christopher Evan Welch (Synecdoche, New York), who reads all of it in a dry, deadpan tone that clashes sharply with the lush setting and passionate characters. This contrast might seem inexplicable and even annoying at first, but it's brilliance is the way it provides a subtle, dismissive commentary on all the relationships in the film—not just the lifeless engagement between Vicky and Doug that we know we're supposed to pity. For Allen, neither stable normativity nor volatile passion are truly livable and enduring in the long-term. With this tone of narration, he has found a clever way to infuse the cheery film with his rather bleak worldview—a way that isn't heavy-handed and that still lets us sit back and drink in the pretty views and pretty people. It's the one master stroke in a film that otherwise pleases more than it thrills.
Okay, I take it back. There is one other big thrill in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and that's Penélope Cruz. Her mysterious Maria Elena doesn't even show up until the movie is half over, but when she does, she steals every single scene she's in. No one does fiery Spanish lunatic better than Cruz, who performs better when she gets to speak her native tongue (as she often does here). In her lunacy, she is sexy, vulnerable, and remarkably funny. Cristina is wary of her, understandably, because she once stabbed Juan Antonio in a rage. But when Cristina becomes angry during a serene picnic with the revelation that Maria Elena snooped in her suitcase, Cruz's character gently explains: "Of course I went through your luggage…How could I be sure you weren't going to hurt me? After all, I have thought of killing you." The delivery here is pitch-perfect humor: a conversational and offhand, but totally genuine, admission of murderous intent.
Cruz steals the show, but all of Allen's performers here do well. Hall does a nice job channeling Diane Keaton and winning our support for her uptight character. Johansson is clearly upstaged by Cruz, but the truth is that she just doesn't have a very meaty part here. Cristina lacks confidence and talent, but she's doesn't cross the threshold of pathetic that would actually make her sympathetic. She's kind of just there as a bland ingredient that highlights the spiciness of all the others, and in this rather thankless role, Johansson does fine. We also get solid turns from the film's supporting actors. Messina is appropriately dull and irritating, and the always-welcome Patricia Clarkson shows up as Vicky's wealthy relative who hosts the girls during their stay and becomes invested in their romantic entanglements. It's the Spaniards who really get the juicy roles, though, and Bardem plays his casanova very well. When he first walks over to Vicky and Cristina's table and intones his offer in his low, creepy voice, one can't help recalling the terrifying killer he played in No Country for Old Men and worrying for the ladies' safety! But Bardem quickly shakes that aftertaste from his last big role and makes Juan Antonio improbably charming. Take the following exchange, for example, when Vicky has just dismissed the idea of having "empty sex" with him:
Juan Antonio: "Empty sex? Do you have such a low opinion of yourself?"
Most actors would have a hard time refraining from condescension and pretentiousness in delivering these kind of lines, but Bardem manages to be earnest without being self-righteous in his ceaseless affirmation of life's pleasures. After his first appearance, Vicky exclaims with disbelief, "I'm not going to Oviedo with this charmingly candid wife-beater!" and at that moment I was vigorously nodding in agreement. But by the end of the film, Bardem as Juan Antonio had somehow won me over. It did help that the wife-beating rumors were unfounded.
With a few great highlights and a lot of enjoyable performances, Vicky Cristina Barcelona also has some marked flaws. Allen favors shallow stereotypes in creating his Spanish characters—they're passionate, they're romantic, they're artistic, they're sultry—and it's lucky for him that Cruz and Bardem were able to transcend them so thoroughly. My hat is off to Bardem, in particular, who is forced to play his opening scene in a red satin shirt, for Pete's sake. Allen also proves he has little more than stereotypical things to say about lesbian sex. After showing the kiss between Cristina and Maria Elena that was the focal point of all the film's advertising, Allen has Cristina describe their encounter as "very loving and gentle." "Loving and gentle" seems to be the only kind of lesbian sex scene unimaginative straight writers create, outside of porn anyway. This kiss brings me to another criticism, which is that this sultry Spanish romance is not nearly steamy enough in its sex scenes. We get a few shots of people rolling around in warm lighting and facial close-ups, but I think Allen should have ditched the PG-13 and given us something more exciting. For a story in which passion and sex are so central, the tameness here is rather misplaced. Lastly, considering the current global economic crisis, it might chafe a bit to visit this world of careless extravagance. Juan Antonio is a painter, his father is an unpublished poet, Vicky is a graduate student, and Cristina is a student filmmaker—and yet all of them indulge in limitless luxury and leisure time. Isn't the life of the independently wealthy infuriating? At least most of them seem to be vaguely unhappy!
On to aesthetics and the quality of this Blu-Ray release. Vicky Cristina Barcelona could practically have been produced for the Catalan tourism bureau, and it features gorgeous shot after gorgeous shot of the truly breathtaking region. If ever a city deserved such a loving caress from the camera lens, it's Barcelona (go see Cruz's other Barcelona film, the fabulous All About My Mother, for more of this treatment). Though I expected the softness and warmth of the film to be a bit at odds with Blu-Ray's ultra-crisp presentation, I admit that I was wrong. The richness of colors and light are rendered beautifully here and the Blu-Ray treatment is definitely worth paying for in this case if you want the full effect of those sumptuous Spanish vistas. The video score here does take a hit because of some problems I suspect happened during production rather than transfer: the focus is off in a few scenes and there is one particular scene in which the contrast is terrible, with blacks looking very dull (when characters attend a nighttime guitar performance). Speaking of guitar, though, the film has a great score that's heavy on the Spanish classical guitar. That's about the most exciting thing we have to listen to in the audio department, but music and dialogue are both crisp and clear.
And what's there to say about the extras? Nothing, since there are none (I think because Allen disapproves of them). Blu-Ray's amazing storage capacity is wasted on this feature-less release.
Displaced from his familiar Manhattan stomping grounds, Woody Allen's work thrives in the fresh air of Barcelona. While it's perhaps not really the best comedy of the year, it is indeed a must-see for the brilliant narration, Cruz's perfect volatility, and the sumptuous scenery.
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